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Why assume NBA stars are jerks?

LeBron James and Carmelo AnthonyNoah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images

Consider the possibility that LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony are fairly normal guys.

These young, dumb, rich, arrogant jerks. That's a major theme in how people talk about NBA superstars.

Certainly, there's some truth in there. But what's disturbing to me is that even the evidence is of NBA superstars behaving normally, (maybe even being honest or thoughtful) the rhetoric gets heated, character-centric and derogatory.

Despite the fact that they make millions of dollars people like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony are not so different from you and me. We all saw it once already with James this summer. He was a free agent. He chose where he wanted to play, like any free agent would (there's no point to free agency, otherwise). He took less money than he could have made elsewhere to play with the players he wanted to play with, even though better markets and maybe even better rosters -- for instance, the Bulls' -- were available. While I recognize the real loss in Cleveland, and while there was the issue of that TV show, I still see nothing in any of that to convince me James is diabolical.

Yet all that made him possibly the most hated athlete in history, at least for a time.

Now everyone gets to play the fun game of wondering about how that wacky Carmelo Anthony's brain works.

The common version of the story is that Anthony's a petulant wannabe star who doesn't defend and, despite some big-name teammates, has soured on his squad for whatever reason and is now raising hell, throwing his weight around like an oversized baby to make sure he gets his way. You could go around the world of NBA media and find all manner of damning insinuations about Anthony over these last few weeks.

A question from "Az" in David Thorpe's chat today: "Is it fair to say Melo doesn't care about winning if he accepts a trade to NJ?"

(Subtext: He's flawed! He's weird! He's demented! I knew it!)

Thorpe's answer: "No."

Or another notion you'll see, likely in the comments of this very blog post: Who's advising him? As in: How could Anthony possibly get have gotten himself in this terrible pickle of being offered $65 million by more than one NBA team, even though he's under contract and collecting a huge paycheck every two weeks? What a moron!

Meanwhile, it seems to me there are some pretty commonsense explanations for just about everything Anthony has done.

Going home

He wants to go home. That's not hard to understand. He is an East coast guy. He lived in Red Hook, Brooklyn, until he was eight, and then Baltimore, a few hours south. He won a national championship at Syracuse. He always wanted to be a Knick. His wife Lala Vasquez is a professional performer who would have a far easier time finding work in New York than Denver. But more than all that, his family is in the Northeast, and seven-and-a-half seasons of Rocky Mountain living has been enough.

Anthony has a son, Kiyan, who is almost four and will be in elementary school before long.

And, of course, don't forget Anthony's sister just died. It's a good time for the Anthony family to circle the wagons.

In almost any other profession, from pop star to banker, someone with Anthony's money would simply move wherever he wanted. The NBA is most odd in that people don't have that freedom. If it were denied to the rest of us, many of us would whine far louder than Anthony has.

Guaranteed money

One argument that Anthony must be loco is that he could simply become a free agent this summer and pick his team like James did. But he is not well positioned to do that.

For one thing, he wants to play in the Northeast, which makes it hard to play the free agency game, in which you have to be ready to triangulate between various offers with threats, real or implicit, to move somewhere like Miami.

Another key point is that what he wants is in sight. He already has the ability to get a big deal from a good owner -- the winning obsessed and wealthy Mikhail Prokhorov -- in the Northeast. If you can get guaranteed money close to home, why bother with the perils of the open market?

Finally, of course, and this is a huge point, free agency in the summer of the NBA's looming lockout could be the one thing to make him look really dumb. To be a superstar you have to workout hard almost year-round. This offseason might be six months long! Who wants to spend six months of those intense Idan Ravin workouts knowing that you're a microfracture surgery or A.C.L. tear from never making another million? He has a $65 million deal on the table. Seems crazy not to work up one of those extend-and-trade deals, especially if he can do so while meeting his other needs.

Now, does that mean the Nets are his dream destination? Would they be yours? I didn't think so. Maybe in a year or two. So, the process drags out a bit, just in case some other interesting suitor comes along.

Not all about the Knicks

"New York is playing well right now. I don't think they're looking at me. They wouldn't want me to come in there and mess what they have up. That's what I've read."

That's what the New York Daily News quotes Anthony saying. Why would he say that mysterious thing? Is it part of some grand chess match? What's he angling for?

A source close to Anthony says the truth is far simpler: Anthony read Amare Stoudemire quoted saying that he didn't want to break up the team, and he respects Stoudemire's wishes.

Trade demands

In the immediate aftermath of The Decision, people had a frightening list of LeBron James' many offenses to human decency. Over time, though, one of the criticisms that has stuck is that he should have notified the team earlier, so that they might have recouped some value for him.

That's exactly what Anthony is doing. Sure, there are those who say Anthony is being a jerk for putting the wheels in motion to get out of Denver. But let's be honest: he has earned the right to make things far tougher on the Nuggets. He hasn't trashed the team, and he hasn't left then high and dry. They're well positioned to demand high value in return.

No, it doesn't fit the mold of a graceful star from another time, who would be happy just to have any NBA uniform and never complain about anything. But that model was flawed from the start, and didn't allow for the reality that the stars have tons of power, and they don't have to be crazy to use it.